I met Tuff on a mild fall day a couple years
back. My wife and I were wandering through the countryside in an old pickup, as we tend to do on lazy Sunday afternoons. I knew the country well: it comprised the “stomping grounds” of many adventures from my younger years. The sight of an unfamiliar and slightly out-of-place structure invited a change-of-course for a closer look.
As we drove past Tuff was there, out front working amongst saw-horses, power tools, and piles of materials; his big, beautiful, modern-cut home as a backdrop.
Tuff Larson is the kind of guy who invites you in. If you stop for a minute, you’d be a fool not to have planned for an hour. Homemade lemonades in mason jars are likely to accompany the conversation.
I believe that the kinds of things that are built by hand are the most interesting kinds of things. Knives, boots, clothing…they all carry with them the stories of their builders. Hand-built goods carry with them a certain nostalgia that you’ll never experience with the store-bought version of the same thing; saddles and copper mugs are no exception.
When I learned that Tuff was a saddle maker, I had to know more. There certainly aren’t many of those kinds of folks around any longer. The art of building something functional by hand is a dying one; and certainly so when speaking of saddlery.
I had a thousand questions for Tuff. I’ve never been a horseman and have absolutely no need for a saddle but the idea of building something like a saddle from nothing was fascinating. My second trip to his place was more intentional…and was scheduled; I’d taken him up on his invite to check out the saddle shop.
A grain bin stands on the outskirts of Tuff’s ranch yard; overlooking a stable of horses…long considered obsolete for more efficient harvest logistics. The bin fits in amongst this country, hardly a reason to ponder its existence any further than a passing glance: until you clear its radius just enough to bring a pergola-adorned front porch into plain view. Trot up a few steps and through a front door and a mini-oasis appears.
The interior of the old grain bin is insulated and built out in the name of function. A hat rack full of cowboy hats greets you first and then your eyes scan the round room. Colorful cowboy art and vintage signs adorn the walls. A large sturdy workbench, strewn with straps, scraps, and tools divides the room into two semi-circles. Old-timey sewing machines line the outer arcs and the whole place smells perfectly of rich leather.
The sewing machines are incredible; built and operated in the early trimester of the 1900’s. I
can’t take my eyes off them – they look incredibly heavy. The spin of a nearby wheel relays the sounds and feel of precision that hasn’t been built into machinery for almost a century.
“You collect these?”
My mind realized the stupidity of the question before it was finished, but out it came.
“I use ‘em!” Tuff exclaimed.
Everything I loved about Tuff’s story just kept getting better.
We spent an afternoon learning the quirks and intricacies of each machine; what era they hailed from, what they were built to manufacture, how he’s repurposed them and where each one shines in the process of building a saddle from scratch.
“This one will stitch leather an inch thick.”
“This one wasn’t working once. I found a guy in St Louis that knew the machine. I hauled it down there and accompanied him while he showed me how to fix it – there’s not a lot of people who know about these machines, anymore”.
These were the kinds of things that Tuff told us about. He obviously knew all about leather and working with it but there was another thing becoming increasingly obvious about Tuff as he showed us his craft: He had a deep appreciation and love for a time long gone away. Tuff’s mind, and how it holds details from history is unique – and it’s one of the reason’s he’s so easy to spend time with.